World Food Safety Day 2020

Sunday 7 June 2020 marks the second World Food Safety Day. At the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), we are celebrating the occasion under the theme Safe food in informal markets: healthier people, wealthier lives, in recognition of the dual role of informal food markets in nourishing people and providing incomes.

On this page, we highlight our long-standing collaborative research on risk-based approaches to improve food safety in informal markets. Aligned with the global call to action to ‘team up for safety’, we also include messages from some of our partners who support our research efforts towards ensuring that the food we buy and eat is safe.

In Asia and Africa, most livestock products and fresh produce are sold in informal markets. The human health burden from foodborne disease is comparable to that of malaria, HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis. Unsafe food is also a barrier to market access for poor farmers.

Food safety is a key part of ILRI's research portfolio. ILRI leads the food safety flagship of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. This flagship seeks food safety solutions that can work in informal markets; it focuses primarily on mitigating aflatoxin contamination in key staples and on managing risks in informal markets for nutrient-rich perishables like meat, milk, fish and vegetables.

Better management of foodborne diseases could save nearly half a million lives a year and safeguard the livelihoods of over one billion small-scale livestock producers. 

Our approach to food safety research is based on risk analysis. We identify the hazards in food and build the capacity of policymakers to understand risk-based approaches. Policy will be more effective and efficient if based on actual risk to human health rather than the presence of hazards. We generate evidence and develop solutions to improve the safety of animal products in informal food markets. 


Key messages on food safety

Informal markets feed Africa

Traditional or ‘informal’ markets—places that sell food outside of the formal, regulated food sector—supply 85 to 95 percent of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa. Even as incomes steadily rise, by 2040 they are predicted to still be meeting 50 to 70 percent of consumer demand for food. Informal markets include venues known as ‘wet markets’, so-called because they use so much water to clean the perishable and sometimes contaminated food being sold. Wet markets sell most of the livestock and fish products purchased in Africa. Informal markets also include street vendors, such as the milk hawkers that sell fresh, unpasteurized milk in urban areas.

Selling informally, shunned by supermarkets

Most poor Africans are smallholder farmers, but research shows that they are seldom sought out to supply the Western-style supermarkets opening up across the continent. Wet markets and street stalls often are the only venues where they can sell their produce, meat, milk or fish.

Why informal markets matter for poor people

  • They are typically within walking distance for people who lack cars.
  • They offer the opportunity to purchase fresh food in small amounts.
  • They often sell food on credit.
  • They offer traditional foods their customers prefer.
  • Products are cheaper, sometimes half the price of supermarkets.
  • In many areas there are no other food vendors available.

Surging sales of meat, milk and fish

Most food safety concerns focus on pathogens carried by meat, milk or seafood, which account for about two-thirds of food-borne disease. And experts predict that based on current trends, sub-Saharan Africa could experience an eight-fold increase over the next 30 years in demand for livestock and fish products.

Supermarkets—not necessarily super safe

Food sold in Western-style supermarkets may be no safer—and in some instances is even more dangerous—than what is found in informal markets. Studies in East and Southern Africa have found that, due to a poorly patrolled chain of custody between producer and seller and refrigeration problems, milk and meat sold in supermarkets may pose a greater health threat than food sold through informal markets.

The burden of disease from unsafe food

At least one out of every ten cases of gastrointestinal or diarrheal diseases—a leading cause of death in the region—is contracted from food. Common food pathogens include rotavirus, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Food-borne parasites are common in many parts of Africa: among the most common and important are hydatid (sheep) tapeworm, pig tapeworm (cysticercosis), and roundworms. Neglected tropical zoonoses also persist: milk tainted with bacteria-like Brucella can lead to debilitating disease (brucellosis) while milk also can transmit tuberculosis (second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent).

Hazards—not the same as risks

The mere existence of pathogens in food is not necessarily an indication that consumers are at risk. In many parts of Africa, it’s common knowledge that certain foods may contain hazards and common practice to neutralize them by thoroughly cooking or, with milk, through boiling. In Ethiopia, traditional fermentation of milk has been found to provide a 200-fold reduction in the risk of Staphylococcus poisoning. That said, there are still some cultures where it is taboo to boil milk and others where traditional diets include raw meat dishes.

Livestock and fish—nutrition and income

Compared to wealthy countries, milk, meat and fish play a bigger role in the diets and income of the world’s poor. They provide an essential source of protein and micronutrients with few if any substitutes available. For one billion poor farmers and fishers, sales of milk, meat and fish products through informal channels provide their main source of income.

Downside of good intentions

In developing countries, most food is produced by the poor, for the poor. Attempts to make food safer by enforcing high standards can have unwanted effects, such as preventing small farmers and women from earning income from their work.

High risk, high reward

The most nutritious foods often carry the highest food safety risk. Thus, efforts to improve nutrition typically need to be made in tandem with efforts to improve food safety. Also, policies to promote food safety are often based on encouraging food sales through formal venues, such as supermarkets, and discouraging sales via informal channels, such as wet markets and street vendors. These policies have nutritional impacts because food in the informal sector is usually cheaper and sold closer to the consumer.

There is no food security without food safety

If it is not safe, it is not food. Food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life. In fact, food safety is a critical part of the utilization component of the four dimensions of food security – availability, access, utilization and stability.

Unsafe food takes a huge toll on human health and the economy

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 die every year from eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals. According to the World Bank, unsafe food costs low-and middle-income economies alone about USD 95 billion in lost productivity annually. Unsafe food also limits trade.

Food safety is a shared responsibility from production to consumption

Food safety is everyone’s responsibility and therefore everyone’s business. Today, food is processed in greater volumes and distributed over greater distances than ever before. Widespread collaboration and contributions of all actors in the food supply chain, as well as good governance and regulations, are essential to food safety.


Investing in sustainable food systems pays off

Safe food allows for suitable uptake of nutrients and promotes long-term human development. Safe food production improves sustainability by enabling market access and productivity, which drives economic development and poverty alleviation, especially in rural areas.

Implementing a One Health approach improves food safety

The health of people is connected to the health of animals and the environment. Pathogens transmissible from animals to humans through direct contact or through food, water and the environment have an impact on public health and socio-economic well-being. Together governments, food producers, academia, experts, non-governmental and international organizations can combat food safety risks such as antimicrobial resistance as well as pathogenic bacteria on fruits and vegetables as a result of contact with contaminated soil or water and on animal-sourced foods.

ILRI is supporting regional efforts to promote food safety

Food safety experts at ILRI are supporting the African Union to generate evidence towards the Africa Food Safety Index which will help governments to prioritize investments in food safety, reduce the burden of foodborne illnesses and enhance safe trade of food.

Food safety is intricately linked to child nutrition and health

Undernutrition and foodborne diseases are related. Infectious foodborne diseases commonly manifest as diarrhoea, which is strongly associated with stunting. Studies have found an association between aflatoxin exposure and stunting.

Simple interventions can enhance food safety

Pork is the most important animal food product in Cambodia and Vietnam. It is primarily processed and sold in traditional slaughterhouses and wet markets which, while addressing local consumer demand, often suffer from poor hygiene. Pilot tests have shown that simple interventions to improve hygiene during food handling in slaughterhouses and markets can enhance the safety of pork.

Video: Dying for meat

This photo-film features small-scale butchers and consumers interviewed in Nairobi and a commentary by ILRI scientist Delia Grace Randolph on issues that connect animal and human health.

Perspectives on how to rebuild value chains with standards for food safety

In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ILRI food safety expert Delia Grace Randolph recently took part in an e-conference on rebuilding value chains with standards for food safety and against environmental degradation. The e-conference, Rethinking Agri-Business Investments Through the Pandemic, was hosted by the Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness programme, funded by the United Kingdom Department for International Development.

Food safety in Vietnam: Partnership in action
Hung Nguyen-Viet, ILRI senior scientist in ecohealth and food safety, speaks on food safety research partnerships in Vietnam under the CGIAR Research Program for Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute.